Devils Tower, WY — If you’re of a certain age — that is to say, “old,” like me — you associate Devils Tower, Wyoming with one thing: UFOs, of course. The 1977 sci-fi blockbuster Close Encounters of the Third Kind featured the tower in a starring role, a secret government landing strip for alien spaceships tucked at its base.

Last June, I rode a Harley-Davidson Electra Glide touring bike on a 2000-mile trip around Wyoming, Montana and South Dakota, focusing on sites of significance in Native American culture for an article in HOG magazine (“Houses of the Holy: A Reverent Ride through Black Hills, Big Sky, and other Sacred Lands,” Summer 2010 issue). Rounding a bend on Wyoming state road 24, a sense of awe filled me as I spotted the tower’s unmistakable silhouette in the distance. No doubt Native Americans felt the same way hundreds–or thousands–of years ago. The native Lakota called it Mato Tipila (Bear Lodge), investing the place with deep spiritual significance; Native Americans today continue to hold sacred ceremonies at the tower, particularly during the month of June.

Devils Tower is the nation’s first national monument, proclaimed by president Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. Today, the site attracts in excess of 400,000 annual visitors. Its iconic stone formation juts 867 feet into the sky, base to summit, and 1,267 feet above the nearby Belle Fourche River in Wyoming’s northeast corner.

My night’s lodging was practically a stone’s throw away: Devils Tower Lodge is a bed and breakfast and “wilderness climbing retreat” whose back porch sits a mere 800 yards from the tower just outside the boundaries of the park. You get there by entering the park and going down a dirt road. Frank Sanders, the proprietor and as interesting a character as you’re ever likely to meet, will be happy to give you directions.

Frank first came to Devils Tower in 1972 while hitchhiking across the country. He moved to Wyoming in 1976 and has climbed the tower nearly 2,000 times. He purchased the lodge in 1999 (it had been owned by a former park superintendent), and has guided hundreds of climbers to the tower’s summit.  ”Climbing on the tower is a religious experience,” Frank says. “Always has been, always will be. Climbing in itself is so pure. You have laser focus, it’s a heightening of the senses.”

I should note here that climbing Devils Tower is not without controversy. Some Native Americans consider climbing it to be desecration of a sacred site; the National Park Service maintains that climbing is a “legitimate recreational and historical activity at Devils Tower,” but as something of a compromise has instituted a voluntary climbing moratorium each June to “promote understanding and encourage respect for the culture of American Indian tribes who are closely affiliated with the Tower as a sacred site” (quotes from http://www.nps.gov/deto/faqs.htm). It’s obviously an issue with strong feelings on both sides and with little chance of ever being resolved to the complete satisfaction of either.

At 5:40 the next morning, I awoke to a view from my bedroom window of the sun’s golden rays splashed across the tower’s northern face. Shower, coffee, breakfast and I left the lodge and rode back into the park, where from the visitor’s center I hiked the 1.3 mile paved trail that circles the tower’s base. Along the tranquil trail, I watched turkey vultures soaring overhead, enjoying a bird’s-eye view I could only dream about. Boulders lay strewn at the base of the tower, looking as though they had just tumbled there yesterday. I noted pieces of colorful fabric and pouches tied to tree branches: Native American prayer offerings, I was told by a park ranger who happened to be Native American. Out of respect, visitors are advised not to disturb or photograph the items.

No matter your cultural background, Devils Tower is a place of stunning beauty and deep spiritual significance. Frank Sanders of Devils Tower Lodge summed it up poetically: ”There is a certain power in the tower that’s undeniable but undefinable.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

Devils Tower National Monument (National Park Service website)

Devils Tower Lodge:

P. O. Box 66

Devils Tower, WY 82714

888-314-5267

http://www.devilstowerlodge.com/

Leaving Devils Tower, I was pulled over by a very nice sheriff's deputy for going 78 mph in a 65 mph zone. He let me off with a warning...whew!

About Glen Abbott
Glen Abbott is a Florida-based travel writer & photographer. He specializes in writing about motorcycle touring and travel, and his work appears regularly in Harley-Davidson's HOG magazine, American Iron, and other publications.

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17 Comments
  1. Desirai

    February 15, 2011

    You always include the the most amazing pictures with your posts!

  2. Milena

    February 10, 2011

    Also I think that The Devil’s Tower is in Stephan King’s “The Stand”.

  3. RoriTravel's Florida

    February 10, 2011

    Glen, these photos are beautiful. I’ve wanted to see this part of the country, but your images and story make that desire only stronger.

  4. Milena

    February 9, 2011

    I love the picture of The Devil’s Tower inthe rear view mirror. That is so awesome!

  5. Kelly

    February 9, 2011

    Wow, this looks like a really lovely place Glen. I really like that you included that hiking here is controversial. It’s important to know these things, i think, especially in this area.

  6. John in France

    February 9, 2011

    Thanks for opening my eyes to another amazing place!
    John in France recently posted..France – Was I a Frenchman in another life

  7. Jozef Maxted

    February 9, 2011

    Thats an amazing bit of landscape yo have captured there! I would love to know what kind of geological activity could cause something like that to form!
    Jozef Maxted recently posted..Departure

  8. The NVR Guys

    February 9, 2011

    Great photos. The NVR guys are total suckers for the national Parks and national Monuments (USA! USA!). We haven’t been to Devils Tower, but I am sure it will make it soon. We try to hot the National Parks at least once a year.

    As an aside, why in the hell would someone name a natural wonder “Devil’s” anything. This kind of thing drives me crazy. :)
    The NVR Guys recently posted..Here We Go – Our Mindful Mileage Run

    • Travelin' Gringo

      February 9, 2011

      NVR guys, I think the tower was named “Devil’s” because of a mis-translation from a native american language in the 1800s

  9. Adam

    February 9, 2011

    Looks like an amazing site, Glen. WHat a beautiful thing to wake up to in the mornings. I am finding some great places I never knew about while reading your site. Keep up the great work!
    Adam recently posted..Trekking Torres del Paine-What to Pack

  10. Travelin' Gringo

    February 9, 2011

    Thanks for your nice comments, Frank. Although I neglected to mention all the great work you do at Pine Ridge Reservation, I hope people will read this and help. Having been there also, I know there is great need.

  11. Frank Sanders

    February 9, 2011

    Very Nice Article, Glen. I Know that When the Time Comes Right, You Will Return, and We Will Share the Rope and the Rock, and Some Climbing on Devils Tower. Our Work on Pine Ridge Reservation Continues To Be Strong and Rewarding to ALL Involved. http://www.devilstower-sacredtomanypeople.com Through Kind Donations, Matching Funds and Judicious spending the Lights, Phone and Heat are ON, at the Health Clinic at Porcupine, and the Home Health Nurses are Receiving More of the Supplies That they Need. We Pray that Your Article Will Bring More Attention to the Impoverished Nature of Life, and the Strong Needs that Exist, on that Reservation. THANK YOU for ALL that You DO Glen.
    Blessed Are Those Who Live Out Their Dreams.

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